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Minnesota Opinion: Avian flu outbreak warrants watchful eyes

Despite the avian flu outbreak, experts state that consuming poultry and poultry-related products is safe for consumers.

Breeding turkeys on a farm in this stock photo. Consumers are advised that all poultry products are still safe to consume despite the avian flu outbreak. In addition, Minnesota poultry farmers and the industry need our support at this time.
Breeding turkeys on a farm in this stock photo. Consumers are advised that all poultry products are still safe to consume despite the avian flu outbreak. In addition, Minnesota poultry farmers and the industry need our support at this time.
Source / Adobe Stock
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Will turkey be on your menu for Easter dinner?

If so, you're in good company. According to the National Turkey Federation, Americans will devour 19 million turkeys next weekend — and the bird you serve your family likely was raised in Minnesota, which produces more turkeys than any other state.

But perhaps you prefer ham for Easter. Fair enough. Will you serve a frittata for brunch? Or perhaps some scrambled eggs for breakfast? Or, setting Easter aside, is there a chicken sandwich in your near future?

Chances are fairly good that you answered “yes” to one or more of the above questions, which means you have some reason to pay attention to the news that avian influenza has found its way into Minnesota, (including Kandiyohi, Big stone, Lac qui Parle, Meeker, Renville, Stearns, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties in west central Minnesota.)

If this news sounds familiar — well, it should. In March 2015, an outbreak of “bird flu” type H5N2 was detected in Minnesota. By May 30, poultry producers in 15 states had been forced to destroy more than 40 million domestic fowl, including 30 million in Iowa and 9 million in Minnesota. At the time, Nebraska was home to 9.5 million egg-laying hens, and 7 million of them died or had to be euthanized.

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Government agencies spent nearly $1 billion to safely dispose of infected birds and reimburse producers whose flocks were euthanized, making the 2015 bird flu outbreak the most expensive animal health disaster in U.S. history

Will Minnesota (and the entire poultry-producing and poultry-consuming public) manage to avoid a recurrence of this disaster?

It's too early to tell. The 2015 outbreak spurred a new focus on biosecurity at Minnesota's poultry farms, and while these measures didn't prevent a new outbreak of bird flu, we're about to find out whether they will limit the scope of the outbreak and mitigate its economic impact.

But before we look at that system, some background is in order.

The current outbreak of avian influenza isn't some scary, new, COVID-like virus that baffles scientists. It's a familiar strain of bird flu that was first detected in China in 1996.

While some variants of this virus have been linked to a few hundred human deaths (mostly in Southeast Asia) since 2003, the current strain is not one of those variants. It has been detected in exactly one person, in England, whose backyard flock was infected. This person had no symptoms.

But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that viruses can mutate. Every bird that contracts avian flu presents an opportunity for such a mutation. Not to be alarmist, but the 1918 so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, began as a bird flu mutation.

Clearly, the goal should be to stamp out the current outbreak as quickly as possible.

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The Minnesota Board of Animal Health, whose five members are veterinarians or livestock producers, is on the front lines of this effort. The BAH's website lays out the biosecurity protocols that poultry farmers are expected to follow. It's a fairly daunting set of procedures that covers everything from feed deliveries to insect control, and the overriding goal is to prevent exposure of domestic fowl to diseases carried by wild birds or by domestic birds on another farm.

It's a big challenge. Wild waterfowl are common carriers of avian flu, which means that during migration season, one careless step into a mud puddle containing goose feces could bring the virus into a turkey barn or a backyard chicken coop.

That's why no responsible farmer would allow a visitor to casually walk into a poultry building. The BAH suggests that no farm machinery should move from one farm site to another without being cleaned and disinfected. All visitors should be informed of all biosecurity protocols and be required to wear farm-furnished boots, masks and protective clothing. Employees should start each shift wearing clean clothing that is worn exclusively for work. All feed should be stored in places inaccessible to wild birds. The list of biosecurity measures goes on and on.

So, while it's a bit of an exaggeration to compare a poultry barn to a “clean room” at a biochemistry lab, the analogy has validity.

Of course, the reality is that the Board of Animal Health has limited investigative and enforcement resources. State regulators can't be on hand to make sure every farmer and employee follows all biosecurity protocols before entering a hen house. It's in the farmers' best interests to protect their animals, and given what happened in 2015, we'd like to believe that most operators are making every effort to comply with at least the spirit of BAH guidance.

We will soon know whether that optimism is misplaced. As of Thursday, 34 sites in 14 Minnesota counties have avian flu outbreaks, with more than 1.7 million birds lost. Those numbers pale in comparison to the totals from 2015, but avian flu typically peaks in the spring as waterfowl migrate north, so those numbers could grow dramatically in the next six weeks.

Meanwhile, the best advice we can offer consumers is this: Don't let fear change your Easter brunch or dinner plans. You can't get bird flu by eating chicken, turkey or eggs, and Minnesota's poultry farmers need our support as they deal with soaring feed prices, higher labor costs and nature's latest viral assault.

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Rochester Post Bulletin.

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